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Meet the Singaporean businessman transforming the Pilbara

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Related Story: Singaporean businessman has big plans for wagyu beef productionRelated Story: Tapping into Australia's underground water

A Singaporean businessman says Western Australia's pastoral industry could add a billion dollars in value by tapping into Western Australia's vast underground water reserves.

Key points:

  • Bruce Cheung says there is money to be made from investing in irrigation
  • Mr Cheung has spent millions transforming Pardoo's marginal grazing country into lush green pasture
  • Agricultural consultant Professor Kevin Bell says Mr Cheung's approach is a "gamechanger for this part of the world"

Bruce Cheung said despite the size of the resource and the potential benefits, cattle producers have avoided investing in irrigation.

He suspects they have been put off by the state's complex pastoral leasehold system.

"The water [has been] there for a long time, it's just that they have never gone about dealing with it," Mr Cheung said.

Only 5 per cent of land in WA suitable for irrigation is being watered, which Mr Cheung said is a wasted opportunity for the industry to boost stocking rates, drought-proof land, and reduce reliance on the volatile live cattle trade.

Mr Cheung is new to agriculture. He made his fortune in the duty free business, but three years ago decided there was a big future in agriculture.

"We see the air and the water pollution and the middle class developing in the rest of the world, and we feel the southern hemisphere is definitely where the opportunity of having good pristine food supply is," Mr Cheung said.

Cattle gather on pardoo station.

In 2015 Mr Cheung paid $13 million for Pardoo Station in Western Australia's remote Pilbara region.

He was attracted to it after being told a largely untapped fresh underground river ran under the 200,000-hectare cattle station, and irrigation licences were available.

He has spent a lot of money transforming Pardoo's marginal grazing country into what looks like a lush green dairy farm.

A shot of the irrigation system on the property.

By midyear he will have spent more than $20 million on 18 centre pivot irrigators to water 840 hectares of pasture and is planning more.

"In two years' time I hope we will have reached 30 pivots and in 5 years' time I hope to be up to 40 or 50 pivots," Mr Cheung said.

"It's called 'artesian micro farming' we just made it up!" he joked.

"What we are trying to do is utilise dairy approaches and do very intensive farming on the pivot."

'Gamechanger' for WA's northern beef industry

Agricultural consultant Professor Kevin Bell said the potential of year-round grass in the arid, hot Pilbara is extraordinary.

"It's a gamechanger for this part of the world," Professor Bell said.

"Reproduction, mortality, weight gain are the three things driving the profitability of the northern beef industry, the production of high quality feed when you want it can really change the game on all those three parameters of production.

Pardoo's general manager Brett Blanchett said the underground water driving the irrigation investment is sustainably fed from the Great Sandy Desert, is abundant and under extraordinary pressure.

Brett Blanchett at water outlet

At a newly installed 300-metre bore, he turns a wheel and out gushes fresh water at 250 litres a second.

"With our artesian water supply we've got some of that the cheapest irrigation in Australia," Mr Blanchett said.

"We've got water delivered to us under pressure from the aquifer, there's 30-40 metres of head there so we're running two pivots off one bore just by turning the tap on."

The pivots are divided into cells, and mobs of between three and 400 are moved onto fresh grass in a new cell, every two to three days.

Brett Blanchett speaks to the abc from his property in the Pilbara

Endless possibilities for producers

Mr Cheung surprised many when he chose to "go for the sky" and run highly prized Japanese Wagyu rather than Brahman and Brahman cross cattle common to the region.

Waguy cattle stand near a fence during golden hour on the property

"We should go for what's the best available in terms of taste, in terms of what the market demands, so we basically want to explore whether wagyu is doable in such a dry and hot area," Mr Cheung said.

He will use his extensive Asian contacts to find export customers for his purebred premium wagyu brand — and a more affordable wagyu crossbred product.

Former Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen's Association chief executive Catherine Marriott said drought-proofing irrigation systems will "monumentally change producers' options".

Catherine Marriott

"They can run more cattle without buying more land, they can turn off a heavier animal and a more consistent product which the market not only in Australia but also overseas is demanding," Ms Marriot said.

"It also gives increased fertility which adds will add immense value to the northern beef industry."

She said while it has taken northern producers a long time to recognise the potential of water, Mr Cheung is leading the way with his massive investment.

"Having people like Bruce Cheung would say to me as a smart business person there's definitely money to be made," she said.

At Derby, 600 kilometres north of Pardoo, is a cattle station owned by the Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation.

It installed two pivots three years ago, and agists several hundred of Mr Cheung's Pardoo cattle.

An aerial shows a lush green circle of irrigated farm land, surrounded by arid dust and outback trees

Monthly agistment payments provide a much needed regular income and jobs, as Mowanjum is in charge of running and maintaining the pivots, pumps, fences and livestock.

Mr Blanchett said it has turned out to be a good model.

"And I think it can work elsewhere," he said.

Pardoo is using less than a tenth of the water allocated for extraction from the Wallal aquifer.

Mr Cheung hopes more producers will follow him.

"We have much more than what we need. However the project is not about Pardoo; the project is about how do we properly invest and utilise the water and help the cattle ranchers in Pilbara to develop and make more from their cattle," Mr Cheung said.

Watch the full story on Landline at the new time of 12:30pm Sunday.

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